Matthews finds tough loss no game

Oriole gains perspective in death of Padres pal

May 05, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The San Diego Padres wear patches on their sleeves featuring No. 26, as a tribute to their late teammate Mike Darr.

Orioles outfielder Gary Matthews handles his tribute in the silence of the night.

"I pray," Matthews said. "Before I go to bed every night, I pray for Nat [Darr's widow] and the boys."

The Feb. 15 tragedy that took Darr's life touched Matthews deeply because he had spent three minor-league seasons playing with Darr, sharing rooms with him on the road, hanging out with Darr's wife, Natalie, and eventually their two boys.

Darr and Matthews were two highly touted outfield prospects in the Padres' organization. Together with Ben Davis, the former Padres catcher now with the Seattle Mariners, they were three so-called can't-miss players who climbed the ranks together through the California, Southern and Pacific Coast leagues.

"It didn't hurt to have all three of those guys together," said Mike Basso, who managed all three players with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) in 1997. "Gary got off to a real slow start that year, but to his credit, he put in the extra time and really blossomed.

"Mike was the type of guy who'd give you the shirt off his back."

Time passed, and the three prospects scattered with varying levels of success. On Feb. 15, Matthews was sleeping at home in Los Angeles when the phone rang at 6 a.m.

It was his brother, bearing heavy news about Darr's death.

"I was in shock," Matthews said. "It seemed unbelievable."

Having arrived early for spring training, Darr was driving 10 miles northwest of Phoenix at about 2 a.m., when he rolled his white 2002 GMC Yukon, killing himself and one other passenger, his childhood friend Duane Johnson.

Padres pitcher Ben Howard, the only one in the vehicle wearing a seatbelt, walked away from the crash with a few minor scratches. Darr and Johnson were ejected from the SUV.

Investigators later said Darr's blood-alcohol level was .11 percent, beyond Arizona's legal limit of .08. Initial reports said Darr might have been speeding, but the Arizona Department of Public Safety later determined he was driving the 65-mph speed limit when he steered onto a gravel median, then over-corrected, causing the vehicle to turn perpendicular to the road and then roll, at least 15 times.

Matthews last saw Darr in November and remembered him talking about the new house he and Natalie had purchased. Their boys, Mike Jr. (age 7) and Matthew (2), were growing big like their 6-foot-3 daddy.

"Mike was one of those types of guys who gets along with everybody," Matthews said. "He was fun to be around, and when something like that happens, you just wonder why.

"I went through a stage of just being angry at him, you know that he didn't have his seatbelt on. It's really sad because it turns out that he really wasn't driving that fast and he really wasn't that intoxicated, either. It really was like a freak accident."

The "26" patch the Padres wear represents Darr's uniform number, and it also signifies the age he would have turned in March. It was far too young for a player who had just started reaching his potential, batting .277 in 105 games for the Padres last season.

Six days after his death, about 1,500 people attended his funeral in Corona, Calif. Spring training had started, but the Padres chartered a jet from Phoenix and had about 100 players and personnel in attendance.

Davis and Basso, now a Padres advance scout, were there, along with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Woody Williams and Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick, to name a few.

Matthews, 27, didn't make it. He had bounced from the Chicago Cubs to the Pittsburgh Pirates to the New York Mets since getting traded by the Padres in 2000 and was eager to make an impression with the Mets.

It wound up being a frustrating spring. Matthews hit just .159, and since he was out of minor-league options, the Mets traded him to the Orioles on April 3 for left-handed reliever John Bale.

"As tough as it was for me on the field, it really put a different spin on things," Matthews said. "When Mike passed, baseball sort of took a back seat. You realize what's important. I talked to my family a lot during that time, I talked to my dad [Brewers hitting coach Gary Matthews Sr.] and he was real supportive. My brothers were, too."

Matthews had learned a lot from Darr, going back to that year at Rancho Cucamonga. Whether he had four hits in a game or none, Darr's laid-back demeanor seldom changed. Matthews had been the opposite, torturing himself over the hits that got away, and there were plenty of those early in that 1997 season.

By the time Matthews landed with the Orioles, he was more at peace. He went weeks before finally calling Natalie to offer condolences because he never knew quite what to say. But he called her on the drive from New York to Baltimore, and now he tries to call her about once a week.

Every so often, something funny will happen in the clubhouse, and he'll think back to the good times spent with Darr, whose tattoos and goatee were a cover for his warm personality. And with his batting average sitting at .212 after Friday's game, Matthews was still practicing Darr's methods for not dwelling on the game's disappointments.

"It's never a good situation because there are two kids who don't have a father and a wife who doesn't have a husband," Matthews said. "But it's helped me relax a little bit with this game and know that it's not everything. So if I go out and have a bad night, it doesn't hurt me like it used to. I've sort of taken Mike's perspective on it.

"This game, it's your job and you take it seriously, but in the grand scheme of things, it means nothing compared to your family and your loved ones."

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